FOI researchers give Rhode Island, Pennsylvania poor marks for access

Monday, May 3, 1999

Two new surveys show that neither Rhode Island nor Pennsylvania is consistently complying with requests for public information, even though longstanding state laws mandate such access.

Despite pledges from many Rhode Island officials last year that public access would improve, researchers examining the effects of a 20-year-old Freedom of Information statute found poor compliance by municipal and law enforcement officials.

In a report titled “Open or Shut? Access to Public Information,” the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University found that officials often refused to comply with the state’s public-records and open-meetings laws.

Meanwhile, researchers in Pennsylvania found that nearly one of every three public records request was denied. In the first survey on the state’s 42-year-old Right to Know Act, reporters from 14 newspapers filed 410 requests and were refused 122 times.

Robert Richards, director of the Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University, said the surveys show that citizens are often turned away even when asking for the most innocuous of records.

“There is a mindset that develops in local government,” Richards said. “It’s us against them. As astonishing as that is, I think these folks forget that they work for the public.”

The survey results in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania mirror those found in similar surveys conducted by newspapers in Indiana, Virginia and New Jersey. All of the surveys gave local and state governments low marks for public access.

For example, when Rhode Island researchers requested financial records on a legal settlement, municipal officials provided documentation only 32% of the time. Researchers determined that police departments were often the worst in complying with public access laws. Officials there, the Rhode Island report says, complied only 37% of the time.

In many cases, officials declined even to respond to written requests for records.

“Overall, we cannot conclude that Rhode Island municipalities demonstrate openness as determined by these two laws,” the report’s authors wrote.

But researchers said they have seen some improvement since a similar report last year.

“In less than a year, some of these departments have changed their policies to be in compliance with the laws of open government,” the report says. “This year, virtually all police departments allowed access to the police log. All of the school districts granted access to teacher contracts and school committee minutes.”

Rhode Island is the 49th state to enact FOI statutes. In part, the 1979 Access to Public Records Act reads: “It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decision that go into the making of public policy.”

Student researchers from Brown University and the University of Rhode Island first conducted a study of the state’s public records law last year. In the 1998 study, the group found high compliance with requests for meeting agendas and minutes but poorer responses for other types of records. Police departments rejected 65% of requests for records.

Because so many officials pledged to improve openness immediately, the researchers conducted a second study this year.

As with the previous study, researchers sent students and volunteers to city halls and police stations across Rhode Island to ask for records required by state law to be public.

Researchers say officials often don’t comply because they either don’t understand public access laws, don’t feel compliance is part of their job or don’t believe the records should be open to everyone.

“Public records, by their very nature and legal definition, are open to any person regardless of his or her ability to give a ‘good’ reason for the request,” researchers said. “A citizen doesn’t have to be a relative of the victim or suspect to see an arrest report; or a party in a civil lawsuit to see the financial settlements of the case; or a parent of a child in a school district to access policy information.”

In Pennsylvania, researchers found that police officials denied records requests 77% of the time. State police officials refused all such requests. School principal salary records were denied by 32 of the 118 districts in the state.

Advocates say they want clearer definitions of public documents, language that covers electronic records and penalties against government officials who violate the law.

“Any time the public is frustrated in getting the information they have a right to see, it doesn’t foster confidence in government,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher. “A better set of rules would be better for everybody.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.